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Tales of the tapes

National | Likely leaker of Gingrich tape apparently has leaked before

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

A Seattle broadcaster contends that his local congressman, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.)--the congressman at the center of a controversy over the illegal taping and distribution of a December phone call involving Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and several colleagues--might have done this before.

"Jim McDermott is a recidivist," Seattle talk show host John Carlson told WORLD. Mr. Carlson made the allegation not just locally; fellow Seattle broadcaster Michael Medved was filling in last week for the nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh and invited Mr. Carlson onto the show March 25 to disclose the details.

In 1972, Mr. Carlson explains, an illegally recorded conversation was leaked to the media during the campaign for governor. Rep. McDermott, then a state legislator, was running against state Sen. Martin Durkan in the Democratic primary.

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At the time, Sen. Durkan was the lawyer for a garbage hauling firm, Refuse Removal Association. On the tape, firm officials could be heard discussing a bribe of $20,000 to the state Senate's majority leader, August P. Mardesich, for his help in passing laws requiring the state to compensate the firm if its government franchises were canceled.

"Durkan would be deeply embarrassed that his client was caught discussing a bribe," said Mr. Carlson. The illegal recording, made by a longtime Democratic activist, was leaked to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which ran a front-page story. It resulted in a grand jury indictment against Sen. Mardesich, who was later found not guilty.

Jim McDermott's name didn't come up until three years later, when in sworn testimony the man who made the tape said he gave it to Mr. McDermott. He denied then (and still denies now) that he leaked the tape, but the man who made the tape stands by the story.

Fast forward to 1996. In December, a Democratic activist couple recorded what they believed was a compromising conversation involving a political foe. They took the tape to their local member of Congress, who suggested they take it to Washington and hand it directly to the ranking member of the Ethics Committee, Mr. McDermott.

This time the illegal recording featured a conversation between Speaker Gingrich, other House members, a staff aide, and a lawyer discussing the ethics probe against the Speaker. John and Alice Martin, Democratic activists from Fort White, Fla., admitted intercepting the call from vacationing Ohio Rep. John Boehner's cellular phone. Intentionally intercepting or disclosing a cellular telephone call is a felony, and the FBI has launched an investigation.

Rep. McDermott eventually did turn the tape over to the ethics committee, but it was four days after a transcript of it had appeared in The New York Times and the same day the Martins admitted publicly they made the illegal recording. The committee's chief counsel refused to accept it and instead forwarded the tape to the Justice Department's Criminal Division as evidence.

The story gets more complicated. Congressional staff members of another Gingrich nemesis, Minority Whip Rep. David Bonior, allegedly suggested to the Martins' representative that the couple be granted immunity from prosecution for taping the call. That's what Florida Rep. Karen Thurman's press office is now saying. Rep. Bonior's press secretary denies that account. And for the record, Rep. McDermott will not comment on whether the Florida

couple's story is true.

What also remains unclear is whether Rep. McDermott himself will be part of the FBI's criminal investigation. The law says that intercepting the call in the first place (that's what the Florida couple confessed to) is a crime, but so is intentionally disclosing it--and Mr. McDermott is most likely the culprit. Both crimes are punishable by up to five years in prison, although the penalty could be capped at a fine of $5,000 for a first-time offense.

So what's happening with that federal probe? No one's been charged and no one in charge of the investigation is talking. Mr. McDermott is not talking. Did someone press "mute"? Worse, did someone press "erase"?

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